Votes of Confidence

Dont Take the Bridge

Don’t Take the Bridge 11″ x 14″, colored pencil on UArt paper.

My Don’t Take the Bridge is safely back from the UKCPS International Exhibition in London. It didn’t win any special awards, but the show organizer was kind enough to scan the “people’s choice” ballots which voted for my piece, and sent them to me.  They mean a lot to me, because these individuals not only chose mine above all the other wonderful artwork in the show, but took the time to explain why.  They may never see my blog posting here, but in case they do, I want to say “Thank you!”.  Here they are.

Denise Howard-4Denise Howard-3Denise Howard-1Denise Howard-2

May is jam-packed!

Today begins my most hectic month of 2015.  As much as I like all the art activities, I’ll be relieved when it’s over!  Here’s a rundown on what’s ahead:

Today (May 1): Opening reception for the Pacific Art League Instructors Exhibit, juried by Anthony Meier of the Anthony Meier Fine Arts Gallery in San Francisco.  My Cricket Time won 1st Place!  The exhibit runs through the 28th.

Tomorrow (May 2): University Art in San Jose is hosting their 2nd annual UCreate Day, a trade show with booths and representatives for many art materials manufacturers, demos, door prizes and special prices.  I’ll be representing Caran d’Ache all day (10 AM – 4 PM) and giving a 45-minute presentation about Supracolor water-soluble colored pencils and Neocolor II water-soluble wax pastels.

May 6-16: UKCPS International Exhibition at the Menier Gallery in London, England.  My Don’t Take the Bridge is in it and it’s my 5th acceptance into this annual show so I have hereby earned “Silver” signature status in the UKCPS.  As I write this, my piece has been in limbo in a postal depot in the UK for two weeks, past customs but not yet picked up by the person who will transport it to the gallery.  Still holding my breath hoping that it makes it to the gallery in time for judging for awards.

May 9-10: Silicon Valley Open Studios.  I’ll have my home studio open for visitors to see “where the magic happens” and displaying many of my originals as well as giclee prints and note cards.  The event runs 11 AM – 5 PM each day.  We’ve already started sprucing up the back yard and deck and cleaning my studio.

May 16-17: Silicon Valley Open Studios.  I’ll be exhibiting with a group of nine other artists outside the Cupertino Library.  We have to put everything up and take everything down and take it home each day, so it’ll be a lot of work.

May 30: Quarterly CPSA chapter meeting at the Bothwell Arts Center in Livermore, 11 AM – 3 PM.  I’ll be one of several artists giving mini-demos as the program.

Notice anything missing in all that?  Creating any new art!  It’ll be a wonder if I finish even a small drawing this month.  I’m tired just reading this schedule–I think I’ll go lie down now!

“Starsky & Hutch” and art

It takes many long hours to finish one of my drawings. I’ve learned to pace myself and take five-minute breaks every hour or so, and one-hour breaks every four hours or so. Recently during one of the long breaks I discovered that reruns of Starsky & Hutch are now on cable TV.  Not to date myself or anything, but high school Denise was a big fan of Starsky & Hutch.  It didn’t win any Emmy awards and the writing wasn’t great, but it’s fun to remember why I had such a crush on David Soul, and my best friend was similarly smitten with Paul Michael Glaser.  So I set the TiVo to record them to watch during my breaks.

After a couple of episodes I remembered that some of the very first graphite portraits I ever drew were of Starsky & Hutch.  As a poor kid I couldn’t afford posters, but I was getting pretty good at drawing, so I bought a couple of magazines with especially good photos of them and drew them bigger to hang in my room.  Copyright wasn’t an issue because they weren’t for sale and there was no internet.  In working from these magazine photos, I had a great excuse to stare at every little detail of their faces, and was very motivated to improve my drawing skills so I could reproduce them. Schoolmates mocked me for having a magazine picture of them in my locker, so I never showed these portraits at school, to avoid even more ridicule.

My portrait of Hutch (David Soul) that I drew at age 15 on awful drawing paper.

My portrait of Hutch (David Soul) that I drew at age 15 on awful drawing paper. 8″x10″

But the last one I did was different.  It was 16″x20″, Starsky in a white suit (remember this was the 70s), sitting on a park bench.  It turned out so well my art teacher asked to show it in the school display case for a couple of weeks, and commissions for portraits of local folks started happening!  I even included it in my portfolio for admission to art school.  A couple of years later in college, someone asked about buying it to give to his sister for her birthday.  I was surprised that anyone remembered it, and I didn’t really want to sell it, so I suggested the ridiculous price of $50.  But that wasn’t high enough, because he bought it, and I never saw it again.  I bought two dresses with that $50 (again, remember this was the 70s!), and I still remember the dresses, but I’d rather still have that drawing in my archives.

My portrait of Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser) that I did at age 16.

My portrait of Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser) that I drew at age 16. 16″x20″

So what does this have to do with artwork?  Inspiration, motivation, and skill improvement.  It worked for me.  If you like something enough to want to spend hours with it, and you wish you could draw or paint well enough to do it justice, you have all the inspiration and motivation you need for improvement.  Nobody else ever has to see your work, or know that you did it as a fangirl/boy, or think you’re silly, or fret about copyright.  It’s all for you.  If it makes your art skills better, it’s all good!

A Humbling Experience

I had a very humbling experience last night. The setting was an event with many former co-workers, many whom I hadn’t seen in 15 years except on Facebook.

Three different people came up to me and the first thing they said was “I am so inspired by you!” It was all about my having returned to my art and making it a priority and producing quality work, while still working as a software engineer. One of them said he has resolved to start painting again because of me. Another of them has an ivy league PhD and a technical Academy Award, but said he was inspired when I took part of a year off from regular work to focus on my art. I have so much respect and admiration for the drive and accomplishments of these people, and yet here they were telling me, completely unsolicited, that they admired me.

I had no idea that my journey meant anything to anyone else other than me. I guess the lesson is to live life as well as you can not only for yourself but because you never know who is taking note for their own lives. Another lesson for me was that the act of making art affects others in ways we might not have imagined!

Saving a Lot of Time with Swatch Charts

When you first start working with colored pencils, deciding which pencil is the right color for the moment is a matter of picking up one that seems like it might be close (based on the color of its core), scribbling a little on a scrap or the border of your drawing, assessing whether that’s indeed the color you hoped, and if it’s not, trying again.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

This adds up to a lot of time over the course of a finished drawing, especially since those little scribbles can’t tell you later which pencil they came from.  It’s surprising how different from the pencil core a swatch can look.  You end up trying the same pencils multiple times.  I actually saw a finished drawing at the California State Fair in which the artist left their test-swatch border clearly visible and remarked on it in the artwork description.


Before I made a swatch chart for this set of pencils!

This time loss is compounded if you have a large set of colored pencils such as the full set of 150 Prismacolors, and even more if you have multiple large sets of colored pencils.  So many greens!  So many blues!  Where to even start? It can seem overwhelming.  You might be tempted to print a color sheet from the manufacturer, but don’t: your printer’s inks will not match the pencils’ cores, and the printed colors will vary from printer to printer.

Here’s my time-saving system.  In a previous blog post I described how I organize my sets of pencils, and that is half the solution.  The other half is making your own swatch charts and keeping them on your drawing table while you work.  I’ve already done the hard part for you!  You can download swatch charts for the full sets of most major brands of colored pencils from my website.  They’re free–my gift to you as a fellow colored pencil artist.  Print one out and color the “points” with your own pencils, matching the color name on your pencil to the color name on the chart.  I recommend only coloring the “points”, not the whole “pencils”, so you can easily read the numbers and names.  Tape your finished chart to the top of your drawing board.  It’s important that your reference, your drawing, and the chart all be illuminated by the same light, otherwise your eyes may be fooled into mismatches. Now, notice that the swatches are numbered from 1 to whatever the set size is.  Those numbers correspond to the number tags you put on your pencils (you did read my other blog post, right?).  I recommend the numeric tags, because the color names on pencils are stamped with metallic paint and are therefore hard to read and take even more of your precious time.


A portion of a swatch chart after I colored the “points” with my own pencils.

Now when you’re working on a landscape and your reference has a deep blue color, look for a match on your swatch chart.  If its number is 44, pull the pencil tagged 44 from your set. Voilá!  Look how much time you just saved!


I looked for a violet color on the chart. I found it at #44, so I pulled out my #44 pencil.

You’re welcome!  :-)

How I try out new materials

I often see people at art material trade shows or art supply stores, trying out pencils, pens, paints or papers by making a few quick strokes.  In ten seconds, they’ve already decided whether they like it or not and will ever buy it.  They put it down and walk away. This is unfortunate.  Think of how many things you hated or were awful at on your very first attempt or usage:  climbing a tree, driving a car, wearing a bra, drinking beer, speaking in front of a group, ice skating, using a new phone.  In each case, there is nothing inherently wrong with the object or activity, it’s only that one quick try isn’t enough to understand it or have any skill with it.  One needs to invest a little more time with it, and then it’s fine.  It might even be better than fine, it might be terrific!

Many art supply manufacturers know of this short-attention-span problem and give out free samples for folks to take home and try on a small project.  A small sheet of paper, or a pencil, for example.  But that doesn’t seem to help; many artists I know have drawers or boxes full of free samples they’ve never used but can’t bring themselves to donate.

I have a few free samples laying around, too.  But if something comes recommended, such as a particular brand of colored pencils or a particular type of paper, I don’t simply do a quickie scribble.  I launch into a full-scale project with it.  By the end of the project, I’ve spent several hours learning how that material behaves under the full range of my expectations, and I either have a new finished artwork to add to my body of work, or a binned failure.  The latter is pretty rare, though, because I can generally augment the process with materials I do already like and it turns out fine anyway.

Two recent cases illustrate my point.

Case #1: Pencils

Tree of Stories, 15"x20", colored pencil on Stonehenge paper

Tree of Stories, 15″ x 20″, colored pencil on Stonehenge paper

Tree of Stories was my first time using Faber-Castell Polychromos colored pencils.  It’s 15″ x 20″, so I knew I was in for several weeks of familiarization.

The first few strokes I put on my Stonehenge paper, I thought “Uh-oh, this isn’t going to work at all.  I’ve made an expensive mistake buying the whole 120 set.”  They are oil-based so are much more powdery than waxy Prismacolor Premiers or Caran d’Ache Luminance.  Because of that, I could lightly run my finger across the surface of the paper and quite a bit of pigment lifted right off.  Horrors!  But then I thought, “Well, maybe I can use that powderiness to my advantage–it probably will fill the tooth of the paper easier.”  And it did.  I was careful to keep a paper shield under my drawing hand at all times and never scoot it to move it.

Then after a day or two I noticed that it seemed the darker colors had faded and I had to re-apply them to enforce their intensity.  It wasn’t my imagination.  From talking to other artists I learned that Stonehenge paper seems to absorb something in the Polychromos.  That was easy to fix–I added a bit of Prismacolor on top of those areas.  By the time I finished a few weeks later, I knew how to use Polychromos pencils to do what I want, admired their range of browns and greens, and had a drawing that was good enough for acceptance into the 2014 CPSA International Exhibition.

If I had stopped after those first few strokes, Tree of Stories would still have happened with other pencils, but I would be telling people, very mistakenly, that these great Polychromos pencils are awful.

Case #2: Paper

Mutual Support, 14"x21", graphite on Canson 88 paper

Mutual Support, 14″ x 21″, graphite on Canson 88 paper

Mutual Support, 14″ x 21″, was my first time using Canson 88 paper.  I had been looking for some good paper for graphite, to achieve darks without a lot of shininess.  Stonehenge paper works great for colored pencil but isn’t quite what I wanted for graphite.  Gil McMillon, the owner of Accent Arts in Palo Alto, suggested another printmaking paper, Canson 88.  It’s 100% cotton like Stonehenge but has almost a plate surface.  I was skeptical–how could such a smooth surface work for graphite?  I bought a single 22″x30″ sheet for about $8.50–quite a bit more than a sheet of Stonehenge costs.  The first few strokes I took on it seemed to confirm my fear–there was virtually no tooth at all, so the graphite went on very smoothly.  I thought “Oh no, the pencil is going to skate right off the surface and the whole drawing will end up light gray. I just wasted $8.50 on this big sheet I can’t use for anything else.”  But I kept going, and within an hour I was sold on it.  The fact that it’s 100% cotton makes it hold graphite despite its plate surface. It’s easy to achieve smooth shading and very dark darks since there is virtually no tooth to fill.  I used only a 4B pencil for the entire drawing and am very pleased with how it turned out.  I returned to Accent Arts yesterday to buy two more sheets!

To summarize, it takes more than a few strokes to decide if an art material is right for your way of working; you won’t really know before you invest a few hours with it.  Be brave, launch into a full-fledged piece with the same determination you give to your usual work.

Why don’t you draw more?

I completed 10 drawings in 2014, and 10 in 2013.  I’m pleased with that number, but you might wonder “Why don’t you draw more?”  The answer is complicated!  I’m not here to make excuses, I’m here to help my fellow artists feel less guilty about their own production rate, and help others understand why I’m fine with my rate.  There’s more involved than the actual art creation!

First of all, I have a full-time job as a software engineer at a startup company, so that consumes a minimum of 40 hours per week.  Art is not my “hobby”, though—it’s my other career.  Every day, I have art-related stuff to do.  I’m no less of a professional for having a non-art-related career that I enjoy and that pays the bills and subsidizes my art business.  It just means I can’t do my art activities full-time.

Second, my drawings take many hours to complete.  A 5”x7” image of a monarch butterfly may take up to 20 hours; a 15”x20” image of a tree may take 80 or more hours.  It’s the nature of colored pencil, one of the few downsides of the medium.

Third, there’s everything else.  To illustrate: last Sunday I spent most of the day doing art-related tasks that involved no drawing at all.  It was all stuff that needed to be done:

  • Uploaded a new image to my website and two other websites on which I have galleries
  • Updated prices and calendar page on my website
  • Reviewed several dozen potential reference photos to narrow down to what my next drawing will be
  • Submitted an entry for an upcoming juried exhibit
  • Set up a new set of 120 colored pencils, organized in containers by color family
  • Corresponded with the education coordinator regarding my upcoming workshop
  • Emailed advance information to the registrants of my upcoming workshop
  • Assembled packets for my upcoming workshop
  • Corresponded with a commission client
  • Made giclee prints for client
  • Read latest issue of Professional Artist magazine
  • Closed out income and expense folders from 2014
  • Created new business spreadsheet for 2015
  • Reviewed sale ads from online art supply retailers for possible bargains

I get tired just reading all that!  I didn’t even realize I’d accomplished so much until I wrote it out.  Anyway, this is a good example of how a day can be consumed by doing necessary art-related tasks without actually creating art.  And this is not unusual.  Other tasks that may come up are:

  • Answering queries from my website
  • Preparing presentations
  • Delivering or picking up artwork from the framer
  • Delivering or picking up artwork from an exhibit
  • Attending an exhibit opening reception
  • Packaging artwork for shipment
  • Taking artwork to USPS or UPS
  • Blogging
  • Buying supplies, either online or at a local store
  • Planning and running CPSA chapter meetings and events
  • Printing and packaging cards and prints for sale
  • Scanning artwork and processing the digital images
  • Recording my income, expenses and mileage in a spreadsheet and filing receipts

Many of the tasks on these lists would not be there if I was doing my art only recreationally, but since I am trying to meet professional goals and make a business of it, they are necessary.  So 10 finished drawings per year is fine with me.